Reviewing the new Tortuga Setout Backpack

Here we are with Tortuga’s latest travel backpack, the Setout, the middleman of a broad lineup of packs going from light, to medium, to heavy. This one is right in the middle, providing a great mix of features in a not-so-heavy package, in a full-sized (but still carry-on compliant) capacity of 45 liters, with suitcase-style access, plenty of organization, and duffel-bag conversion for checked-bag or shoulder-carry utility.

Sitting comfortably between the more fully-featured Outbreaker backpack and the lighter and more minimal Homebase backpack, the Setout is for those who want plenty of useful travel-friendly features, but don’t need to be weighed down by a pack with all of them.

Tortuga sent me a review sample to try out, and with backpacks being one of the most important investments a traveler can make (and one that’s particularly difficult to replace on the road), it’s time to investigate how it stacks up.

The Tortuga Setout Backpack, in review

Here it is, from the front:

Tortuga Setout Backpack

And the back:

Tortuga Setout Backpack main back panel view

Moving onto the fine print:

Specifications

  • Dimensions: 22″ x 14″ x 9″
  • Weight: 3 lbs 10 oz
  • Capacity: 45 liters
  • Price: $199

These dimensions are carry-on compliant for travel in North America specifically. Certain European budget carriers have stricter limits (generally around 35 liters), meaning you’ll have to use this as a checked bag in those situations, and carry a daypack or a smaller bag onto the plane with you (which you should always do).

Tortuga does have other sizes for stricter carry-on limits, but this one is maxed out for American travelers, because everything is bigger in America.

What’s on the outside?

Starting over on this side we have a nicely padded side grab handle, along with multiple compression straps (with elastic loops to keep the dangly ends from dangling too much), and up at the top you can see a shoulder strap attachment, so you can carry the bag like a duffel when the backpack straps are stowed away (strap not included):

Tortuga Setout Backpack side grab handle

On the opposite side there’s a water bottle pocket, and although the fabric isn’t particularly stretchy, it’s wide enough to fit larger bottles, as long as you don’t overstuff the pack:

Tortuga Setout Backpack water bottle side pocket

Here’s what it looks like in use; you can see how a water bottle can fit just fine, but it’s pressing inward into the pack, meaning you should try not to stuff that side too full:

Tortuga Setout Backpack side pocket in use

Expanding folds might have been helpful here, but you can also just store a bottle in the main compartment, and use this pocket for smaller or flatter items, like umbrellas, books, or maps.

Here’s the top:

Tortuga Setout Backpack top view

There’s a comfy padded grab handle, along with the hang-it-on-a-hook handle.

How are the straps?

This is my only real caveat with the Setout backpack; it has the same shoulder straps as the previous Homebase backpack (reviewed here), and I wasn’t the biggest fan of them the first time around. This version does, however, add a much-needed hip belt, which reduces the pressure on the shoulders quite a bit, and it’s definitely a welcome improvement.

Here you can see the shoulder straps, which are thick, wide, and stiff; though I do like those airy perforations:

Tortuga Setout Backpack shoulder straps

So, what’s the problem? Well, take a look at how the shoulder straps attach to the bag, and the angle at which they’re sewn in. It’s nearly horizontal. Combine this with the stiffness of the straps, and it creates a very stiff, rigid, almost sharp edge that can dig into your neck, rather than being distributed evenly across your shoulders.

Take a look at the comparison below, where you can see the Tortuga Setout on the left, and the Minaal on the right:

Tortuga Setout Backpack shoulder strap fit comparison

A few things worth noticing here; firstly, you can see a massive air gap on one side with the Tortuga Setout strap. That’s because it doesn’t follow the shoulder angle, meaning all the pressure is on just one side of the strap.

Secondly, it doesn’t have “load lifter” straps, which are those extra little straps on top of the shoulder straps themselves (visible on the Minaal), which allow you to pull the weight forward, so the top of the pack doesn’t sag backward, which you can see the Tortuga Setout is doing. The Setout is also quite tall, and the shoulder straps aren’t all that close to the top, meaning it can lean back quite a bit. And it’s not just that sagging problem that’s solved with load lifters; if you tighten them down like crazy, you’ll actually redistribute the weight to your chest, instead of your shoulders. This is why I’m so obsessed with load lifters. They don’t just fine-tune the fit, but rather eliminate the weight distribution from your shoulders almost completely, especially if the pack is really tall.

Thirdly, and this isn’t quite visible in the photo above (although you can see it in the photo before that one, of just the straps on display), but the Tortuga’s straps are extremely wide, especially where they’re sewn into the pack itself. This means the tighter you adjust the shoulder straps, the more those straps will close in around your neck. If you’re really small, and you tighten those straps quite a bit, it can start to feel like a vice grip.

I will, however, say a few things in its defense; firstly, the massively padded hip belt does a huge service in reducing the weight on the shoulders. That’s the case with any hip belt, but it’s especially helpful here. Secondly, Tortuga has mentioned to me that the straps soften over time, eventually conforming to your shoulders…but due to the angle at which they’re sewn in, this is less likely if you’re tightening the straps quite a bit to fit a small torso, as the angle can’t change, no matter how soft they get. I would expect larger users, with broader, more horizontal shoulders, carrying the pack a bit more loosely to accommodate a larger torso, will have less of these issues…but this is why I much prefer softer, squishier shoulder straps, with softer edges, a steeper (or variable) attachment angle, and load lifters.

Incidentally, Tortuga’s flagship pack, known as the Outbreaker, has nearly all of these features, and I found it much more comfortable. It’s heavy, but otherwise one of my favorites. Take look at the review if that’s what you need.

And again, the padded hip belt is extremely helpful in reducing the pressure on the shoulders. Take a look:

Tortuga Setout Backpack hip belt cushion closeup

Those hip belt cushions are huge, by the way; they’re big enough to fit a passport in the corresponding pocket, along with other small items for quick access without having to remove the pack. Here you can get a sense of the size, along with my pretentious taste in Russian literature in the background:

Tortuga Setout Backpack hip belt pockets

The sheer size of the hip belt seems almost like overkill at first, but the functional hip belt pockets have been rather popular, and they need to be big enough to hold a passport in order to be most useful. They’re great for emptying your pockets when you’re going through airport security, for example, and you can do this while standing in line without removing the pack, and you won’t leave anything behind on the conveyor belt.

The hip belt fits rather high up on the torso, however; the top of the hip belt cushion actually covers my lower ribs, which is pretty far away from the “hip” of the “hip belt” title. This is partly because of how tall they are, and also how the shoulder straps are set somewhat low in the pack, at a full inch lower (when measuring the distance from where the hip belt attaches to where the shoulder strap is sewn in) than other packs I’ve got, and it feels a little weird to have the “hip belt” fit so high up.

The good news? The shoulder straps are the only problem I have with this pack. I can’t get them to fit me correctly, but larger users with more horizontal shoulders should be fine, and the hip belt helps out quite a bit.

What if I need to check the bag?

The straps can stow into a panel behind the backrest, opening up with a little velcro patch so you can stuff them in like this:

Tortuga Setout Backpack stowable straps

Here’s how the shoulder straps detach (via the plastic buckle that says Tortuga), and the hip belt pads detach with a velcro strap:

Tortuga Setout Backpack detachable straps

And here it is half-detached, just so you can see how it works:

Tortuga Setout Backpack hip belt detachment demo

You’ll notice two straps on the hip belt; the lower one is the dangly end of the main buckle, routed behind the pocket so it doesn’t flop around all day.

Here’s what it looks like in duffel mode:

Tortuga Setout Backpack duffel bag mode

It’s a pretty big pack to carry around like a duffel, but some people are bigger and stronger than I am, so whatever. Besides, sometimes you’ll have to check the bag, and stowing the straps is quite useful. The mesh cushions of the backrest are still exposed, and the mesh can snag on sharp edges, so you might want to be careful with that…but at least the straps won’t get caught on anything while in transit.

What about security?

All three major compartments use locking zippers, and the padded laptop sleeve has room for a laptop and tablet.

Here’s a closeup of the locking zippers and zipper pulls, which alternate between zipper pull styles, so you know which is which by look, and feel:

Tortuga Setout Backpack locking zippers

The only pockets that don’t have locking zippers are the water bottle pocket (obviously), and the small front stash pocket.

These aren’t the type of zippers that are immune to the “pen trick,” which allows thieves to break open the zipper and close it again without you noticing; but you can anchor a zipper lock to one of the grab handles, making the trick a lot more difficult to pull off. And although the laptop compartment zipper is on the opposite side of the main compartment zipper, you can use a figure-8 lock, so you don’t need two separate locks. Locking zippers won’t give you perfect security, but it’s such an easy feature to include that I like seeing them.

Also, the above photo is a good time to mention that I love this fabric, and you can see it up close there. It’s both softer and quieter than either of Tortuga’s other packs, and I love the color, just aesthetically.

That’s it for the exterior, so…

What’s on the inside?

First we have a laptop compartment, with padded laptop sleeve, and a separate tablet sleeve:

Tortuga Setout Backpack laptop compartment

The additional tablet sleeve is not padded, although the panel that separates this compartment from the main compartment is padded, so the tablet will be protected as well. I think the idea was to give the main compartment more structure, and they were therefore able to subtract the padding from the tablet sleeve, since it’s surrounded by padding on all sides anyway, so it all works out.

Moving onto the main compartment:

Tortuga Setout Backpack main compartment

It’s just a big open space, aside from those zippered compartments in the door; a packing cube or two will be useful here, although they tend to be useful in just about every design anyway. But with no tie-down straps to hold things in place, it’ll be extra useful with the Setout. The external compression straps will keep things from rattling around inside, as long as it’s not too empty.

How do I stay organized?

Moving onto the final compartment, which is one of my favorite features in every pack that has one…the organizer panel:

Tortuga Setout Backpack organizer panel obstructed view

I cannot get enough of organizer panels. Imagine all the tiny items that would fit in here, and imagine how easily they could get misplaced in a pile of dirty socks in the main compartment. Pen slots, card slots, zippered and open-topped compartments, a passport slot, a key clip, and so on––exactly the sorts of things you’d need when traveling, that you’d want quickly accessible with no trouble. Every backpack on Earth should have an organizer panel.

Notice, by the way, how the pack has even more slots hidden further down, out of view unless you prop the pocket open and look from high above…and they just happen to be credit card slots:

Tortuga Setout Backpack organizer panel

It’s a nice little touch to hide those slots further down, where no one’s going to see them when you just open this compartment up to grab a book or something. They’re especially hard to see when the pack is full.

The only thing I’d change is that I’d move the key clip up just a bit, so it’s out of the way of that top zipper.

By the way, this chamber is actually three-dimensional (you can see the folds in the corners in the very first photo of this post), meaning you could easily stuff a jacket or two in here, giving you quick access without having to open up the main compartment.

Final thoughts on the Tortuga Setout Backpack

The Setout has all the features that make it ideal for travel, with carry-on dimensions, suitcase-style access, a separate laptop compartment, hideaway straps, multiple grab handles, organization for small items, and a massive hip belt for taking the weight off your shoulders. It’s the maxed-out size for carry-on luggage on most North American airlines, offering a huge capacity that should be more than sufficient for extended trips, wardrobe changes, souvenir shopping sprees, and whatever else.

I did, however, run into trouble with the straps. They’re stiff, wide, and almost horizontally attached, meaning they don’t follow the angle of my steeply sloping shoulders, so all the weight is along just one edge of the strap, instead of being distributed evenly. Since the straps are stiff and have rigid edges, it really creates a major pressure point along my neck, especially if I tighten the straps to lift the pack up to where I want it to be.

Granted, the hip belt helps out quite a bit, but I still think this is going to work better for larger people, with broader, more horizontal shoulders. The straps do soften up over time, but if you’re smaller and need to adjust the pack really tightly, the angle is still going to mismatch your shoulders. I would have preferred softer, squishier straps, sewn at a sharper angle, and load lifters, to prevent the pack from sinking backward. The hip belt also fits quite high up on the waist, reaching all the way up to cover my lower ribs, because of how low the shoulder straps are sewn into the pack. It just wasn’t quite working for me, and I would have liked to see those other strap features instead.

But that’s definitely the only major issue I ran into with the Setout backpack. The features are all solid, convenient, accessible, lockable, stowable, and usable; so if you’re fine with how the straps are going to fit, you won’t be let down by anything else.

It’s a little on the big side, so a packing cube or two is going to help prevent things from falling around, especially if you don’t fill it up all the way. The side mesh water bottle pocket isn’t expandable, so it can be a little tight if the pack is stuffed to the max, but those are the only minor issues I feel the need to mention.

So if that all sounds good, pick it up here.

I would also recommend taking a look at Tortuga’s Outbreaker backpack (reviewed here), which is heavier, but has all of the strap improvements I would have liked to see here. It’s been right at the top of my list of favorite travel backpacks for quite some time, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad